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ALFRED WILLIAM HOWITT, EXPLORER & NATURAL SCIENTIST (1830-1908), PART ONE

Two covers appeared at the same website, one to Alfred and the other to his wife, both sent from Meran, Austria. This town in the South Tyrol (Meran in German, and now Merano in Italian, was Austrian up till1918, but now is in Italy) and both have Austrian stamps totaling 30 kr, but also they have a red manuscript ‘50' rate. The first was sent ‘Via Brindisi April 29' (1880) to Alfred W. Howitt F.G.S. (L), Tenclyde, Sale, Gippsland, Victoria, Australia, and there was a transit T.P.O. DOWN octagonal postmark, with a back-stamp of Melbourne (Figure 1).

The second was addressed in the same hand to Mrs Howitt, Tenclyde, Sale, Gippsland, Victoria Australia in 1885, with 3 blue stamps of another design Austrian stamps totaling 30 kr. and postmarked ‘Meran’ (Figure 2).

Alfred William Howitt was devoted 3 pages at the on-line Australian Dictionary of Biography and the contents have been considerably reduced in this paper. He was an explorer, natural scientist and pioneer authority on Aboriginal culture and social organization, and was born on 17 April 1830 at Nottingham, England, the oldest surviving son of William Howitt and his wife, Mary née Botham. He was educated in London and Heidelberg, and the family sailed to Melbourne in 1852 and tried their fortunes in the goldfields. Whereas family members returned to England, Alfred felt at home in the Australian bush. For a time he farmed at Caulfield, but he returned to the bush as a drover. In 1859 he examined the pastoral potential of the Lake Eyre region, leading a party with skill and speed from Adelaide through the Flinders Range. He also managed a sheep station at Hamilton and prospected for gold in Gippsland.

He was an obvious choice as leader when in 1861 the exploration committee of the Royal Society of Victoria decided to send an expedition to find the explorers Burke, Wills, King and Gray, and without blunder or loss he soon found King, the only survivor. For his services he was appointed a police magistrate and a warden of the Omeo goldfields. In 1863 he began a distinguished career as a Victorian public official, 26 of them as a magistrate. In 1889 he was acting secretary of mines and water supply and in 1895 commissioner of audit and a member of the Public Service Board. He retired in 1902 on a pension, but still held several Victorian government positions up to 1906.

Physical and intellectual fatigue seemed unknown to him during his career. In his long magistracy he traveled enormous distances annually on horseback throughout Victoria, and he studied the natural scene. From 1873 he contributed to official reports, scientific journals and learned societies papers of value on the Gippsland rocks. He pioneered the use in Australia of thin-section petrology and chemical analysis of rocks. In botany his Eucalypts of Gippsland became a standard authority and he collected hundreds of varieties of a large range of plants. His greatest eminence came from his work in anthropolgy, which was his main interest and relaxation after 1872.

On an expedition to the Barcoo, he met members of the Yantruwanta, Dieri and other tribes and he learnt some of their ecology, languages, beliefs and customs, but in his family letters he still shared the racial and social prejudices of the day. Even in official roles, his attitude towards the aborigines always appeared to have been the dispassionate scientist. He saw them as a people doomed to extinction by their extraordinary primitivity.

Howitt’s studies as an anthropologist takes up another 1½ pages in the ADB which are beyond the scope of this paper. He died on 7 March 1908 and was buried in Bairnsdale, Victoria, predeceased by his wife, Maria, but survived by 2 sons and 3 daughters. He was greatly honoured during his life, being a fellow of the Geographical Society of London, FGS(L), the Royal Society of Victoria, the Clarke medallist of the Royal Society of N.S.W., an honorary doctorate in science at Cambridge, and he was awarded a CMG for services to the State of Victoria and science, amongst others. A picture of Alfred William Howitt is shown in Figure 3.


 
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